Elena de la Merced (Carolina) and Israel Lozano (Javier) in Luisa Fernanda (Washington Opera). Photo c. Robert A. Reeder

Luisa Fernanda
at Washington Opera (November 2004)

Carlos Carbonnell reports ...

A true believer, I pilgrimaged to Milan for the opening performance of Luisa... in 2003. Being there for that Luisa... was one of the most moving evenings I have spent at any theatre. All zarzuela lovers can never be grateful enough to Plácido Domingo for bringing this play to this stage. Then, just last week, I had the chance to see it again in Washington DC.

Domingo is an excellent Vidal, as most of the role lies in that high-baritone zone typical of 1930’s zarzuela leading men. Nevertheless, one misses the sensuous tones of a true baritone in the second act “Luche la fe por el triunfo”. Women in the audience just don’t swoon the same way when a lighter voice sings this music. He does much better with “Los Vareadores”, where his sense of rhythm and joyous tone really brings the piece to life.  And he acts the part beautifully, speaking the lines with panache and feeling, making for a truly moving final scene; especially since he opts for the sung ending, which is always more powerful. Good as he was in DC, he was better in Milan. I guess there was a particular electricity in bringing a work so close to his heart to the cathedral of opera. And it showed.

María José Montiel is a lovely Luisa. Her voice creamy and warm; deeply moving in the duet with Javier. Her acting is decent enough, but the dramatic outburst in the Revolution scene (what should have been a romanza, with all due respect to Moreno Torroba) was paced so slowly that it never built to the intensity that makes it such an effective emotional/political statement.

In the key role of Carolina, Elena de la Merced made a better impression in Milan than this time around. She seemed a bit disengaged from the action and both she and Domingo were too cool in their duet. She was very attractive in the Subasta scene, but by then the role is practically over.

José Bros sang Javier at the Milan performances and young Israel Lozano played the part in DC. Needless to say, Bros brought tons of star quality and gave Domingo true competition for the audience’s applause as well as for Luisa’s love. I actually think that no single number got a bigger hand in Milan that his “De este apacible rincón de Madrid”. The casting of Mr. Lozano in Washington made the rivalry weaker, thus bringing down a key element of the musical and dramatic tension. After all, we are talking about the character that returns at the eleventh hour to steal the bride of the world’s most famous singer. For this to have some credibility you need to build a stronger case. And this production undercuts the possibility of achieving this by cutting all of the dialogue that serves to establish Javier’s rags-to-glory background, making Luisa’s masochistic fidelity even harder to understand. Israel Lozano did sing very well and cut a fine figure on stage. He just was never give the chance to create a believable match for Plácido.

Mariana is an important role and Raquel Pierotti, who is used to singing more important parts, gave an excellent portrayal in Milan. But in DC, the role was played by Suzana Guzmán whose very heavily accented Spanish was a major drawback. One could argue that people reading subtitles wouldn’t notice, but the overall effect of the performance is seriously jeopardized.

The excitement of the Milan event served to overcome the production’s element of weakness.  I’m talking about the fact that too much of the dialogue has been cut. It is understandable that one would highlight the music more than the drama when playing for a public that doesn’t speak Spanish, and it is reasonable to expect international audiences to be less involved with the comings and goings of Spanish politics in the 19th century. But in the process, supporting characters that add spice to the play (Aníbal, Don Florito) have been too drastically reduced (Don Florito’s part consists of  “No debía usted ayudarle" and “Hija mía, observa y calla”.)

I got the feeling that the mostly Spanish cast at La Scala, because they knew the whole zarzuela, was able to convey most of what had been edited away. The actors filling the secondary parts in Washington had probably studied how to interpret the lines assigned to them, but there was a feeling that those little bits were all they knew about Luisa Fernanda.

The simple and sleek production is beautiful to look at. But I find the staging a little too elegant, lacking the drive and humor that so much a part of the genre. Sagi is a fantastic director, but it feels as if he didn’t fully trust  Luisa... to connect with international audiences. This is a great zarzuela, and in order to claim its place among the worthy works of world musical theatre, it does not need renounce its roots as popular entertainment.

© Carlos Carbonnell 2004

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